Monday, April 04, 2022

 

 Six Jewish Ideas That Have Transformed the World

By Ken Spiro - April 2022

If you were to stop the average person on the street and ask him or her what values are essential for the proper functioning of society, the vast majority would probably mention these five:

-Value of life

-Peace

-Equality before the law

-Education

-Social responsibility

These values are so essential, basic, and obvious to us today that we might assume that they are innate in human consciousness and have always been part of society throughout human history.  You might be shocked to hear that in fact, these values were far from obvious in the ancient world, even amongst the most highly developed, sophisticated civilizations of antiquity.

To get a better understanding of how radically different were the values of the ancient world, let’s hop in our time machine and travel back a few thousand years.  No matter where on the planet we travel to in the ancient world, the contrast between then and now is quite unbelievable.

-Value of life – The right to life is certainly the most basic of all values, yet in the ancient world, it was shockingly absent.  Human sacrifice was commonplace as were blood sports like gladiators. The killing of newborn children (infanticide), was universally practiced as means of both population control and sex selection.

Here is an excerpt from a letter from a Roman citizen named Hilarion, written to his pregnant wife 2,000 years ago:

Know that I am still in Alexandria...I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment, I will send it up to you. If you deliver a child [before I get home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it... (1)

-Peace – When we look at how the world reacts with outrage at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see how unacceptable war has become in modern consciousness, yet this was hardly the case until relatively recently in history.

The ancient world was a place of constant battles and conquest- a world where heroes were the warriors who killed the most and greatest opponents and the only countries that weren’t conquered were those that were strong enough to fight off the conquerors.

-Equality before the law – Equality before the law is the single most fundamental principle of modern liberal democracy, yet for the vast majority of history, this principle was far from fundamental to the political systems of virtually every country and civilization on the planet. For most of human history, in most of the world especially in the highly-developed civilizations, a small group of privileged elites maintained a tight hold on virtually all wealth and power.  The average person was poor and powerless and even the greatest minds of antiquity saw no reason to change this.  The great Roman statesman, Cicero wrote:

What is called equality is really inequitable. For when equal honor is given to the highest and lowest-for men of both types must exist in every nation-this very “fairness” is most unfair, but this cannot happen in states ruled by their best citizens. (2)

-Education – Today free education and universal literacy are a given, but it was a very different story in the ancient world.  Poverty and the struggle for survival forced the majority of children to work from a young age, while deliberate government policy and the desire to control the population led to mass illiteracy for most of human history. While the rates of literacy have varied from place to place and time to time, historians estimate that, on average, until about 500 years ago, only about one in a thousand people could read!

-Social responsibility – Every developed country in the world has social welfare infrastructure to help those in need and there are countless international organizations that fight poverty, and disease, help countries in need and deal with natural disasters.  Almost all of these programs and institutions came into being in the last 200 years, before that time there was virtually nothing.  The philosopher Plutarch clearly expresses the contempt that those who had in the ancient world had for those who had nothing:

But if I gave you, you would proceed to beg all the more.  It was the man who gave to you in the first place who made you idle and so responsible for your disgraceful state. (3)

Even this cursory look at the ancient world shows, that compared to our standards today, it was a pretty brutal and callous world-even in the most advanced civilizations and our list of essentials values was basically absent.  So where do these values come from?

The British historian, Paul Johnson, gives us the answer:

Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place... To them, we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human, of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place. (4)

To understand why the tiny Jewish people were able to have such a huge and transformative impact on the values of the world, we have to look at one more “idea.” All the previous values really come from this one “idea” and without it, we would have none of the others.  That “idea” is one God and one God-given, absolute standard of morality.  This concept, often described as “Ethical Monotheism,” has been history’s most transformative idea in terms of values and morality.

In the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Bile describes Humans as being made “in the image of God” – with a unique, higher spiritual soul.  In Hebrew the word is “Nishamah” and the moral implications of every person possessing this unique, God-given spark, this piece of the infinite are tremendous:

-If every person has this higher soul, then every human life has infinite value, which is why the Talmud states: “He who saves a life it is as if he saves an entire universe.” (5)

-If every human being has this divine spark within him or her, there is fundamental equality amongst all of us as the prophet Malachi states: “Have we not all one father?  Did not one God create us all?” (6)

-If we are made in God’s image, we have an obligation to emulate him... Deuteronomy 28:9 states: “…and you shall go in His ways.”  Just as God is kind and merciful, so too do we have an obligation to be kind and merciful.

John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of America and the second president, summed it up beautifully when he wrote:

“... I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation.  If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of another sect… I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate for all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization… They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more, and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern. (7)

The explanation as to how a tiny, exiled, persecuted and powerless people was able to shape the collective conscience of humanity is the topic for another discussion, but there is no question that ethical monotheism, first brought to the world by Abraham 3,700 years ago, has transformed the world.

 The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had.  But their worldview has become such a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code. (7)

              

(1) Stager, Lawrence E. “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1991

(2) Cicero, Laws, XIII,35.

(3) Plutarch, Morals 235A

(4) Paul Johnson- A History of the Jews

(5) Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:22

(6) Malachi, 2:10

(7) Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews, 1998)

(7)  Joh Adams-Letter to F.A, Van der Kemp, 1808


 

 The Boy who Cried Messiah: False Messiahs in Jewish History

 By Ken Spiro - March 2022

“Messiah” is one of those Hebrew words, like “Amen” and “Hallelujah” that has slipped into the English lexicon.  While the concept of the Messiah originated in Judaism, it was later adopted as a theological concept in both Christianity and Islam.  

What does the word really mean and how do we know who is the real Messiah? 

The root of the word “messiah” is derived from the Hebrew word “to anoint” and is first mentioned in the book of Exodus: 

"God spoke to Moses saying: “Now, take for your self choice spices…pure myrrh, fragrant cinnamon…fragrant cane…cassia…and a hin of olive oil. Of it you shall make oil of sacred anointment.  With it you shall anoint the tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) and the Ark of the Covenant…You shall anoint Aaron and his sons and sanctify them to minister to me. "        Exodus 30:22-30 

Pouring some of this holy oil on objects and individuals designated them as having a God-appointed, higher function. Throughout the Bible different prophets such as Samuel, Nathan and Elijah use this oil to anoint the kings of Israel, and even non-Jewish kings, signifying them as God’s chosen rulers. 

This idea of God using an emissary to designate a ruler as a king, with God-given authority, was adopted in Medieval Christian Europe as the basis for the concept of “divine right of kings”- a practice which continues until today. In 1953, when Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey in London, the Archbishop of Canterbury dabbed oil on her, in imitation of the prophets of ancient Israel. Following this coronation ceremony, the choir sang “Zadok the Priest” composed in 1727 by Handel for the coronation of King George II, which opens with the lyrics “Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon king.” 

While there are many anointed individuals throughout the Bible, in Judaism there is only one anointed one who has the title “The Messiah.”  This messiah has a very special role to play in history and is viewed as an essential part of traditional Jewish beliefs.  He appears during the “End of Days” – the final chapter and the climax of human history to act as a catalyst to speed up the process of redemption for the Jewish people, and ultimately for all of humanity. 

The great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, gives a short but clear job description: 

"The King Messiah will arise and restore the kingship of David to its former state and original sovereignty.  He will rebuild the sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel.  All the ancient laws will be re-instituted in his days….”

                        Maimonides Mishna Torah; Laws of Kings, Chap. 12.

The job is by no means easy.  This messiah, this final king of Israel, has to bring all the Jewish people physically back to the Land of Israel and transform the spiritual level of the nation by having the nation recognize the reality of God’s existence and the Divine origin of the Torah and its commandments. The Messiah must also rebuild the Temple, reinstitute the Temple service and defend Israel against anyone or any nation that tries to stop this process. Once he accomplishes all this, he will be appointed the King of Israel. 

Maimonides continues: 

“If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates in Torah, occupies himself with the commandments…observes the precepts prescribed in the Written and Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of Torah…fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the messiah.  If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.  He will prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together."                Maimonides Mishna Torah; Laws of Kings, Chap. 12. 

While there may have been numerous individuals throughout history who had the potential to be the messiah, you only get the title if you actually complete the job. 

This concept of “the coming of the Messiah” at the “End of Days” is not linked to a specific date. Judaism believes that redemption can come at any time and messianic expectation among the Jewish people has fluctuated dramatically throughout history. 

In keeping with the idea that “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” we see a pattern emerge in Jewish history:  Messianic expectation is highest when the Jewish people are at their lowest.  

Here are a few good examples: 

• The Great Revolt against Rome from 67 to 70 CE, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Second Temple.  The final tragic act in this story was the fall of the mountain fortress of Masada in 73C.E. 

The Bar Kochba Revolt, from 132 to 135 C.E. The leader of this revolt, Shimon bar Kosiba, was initially so successful that he earned the support of the great Rabbi Akiva who saw him as a potential messiah. Bar Kosiba was nicknamed “bar Kochba-son of a star,” as an allusion to his messianic potential.  Tragically, this revolt ended in failure with the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews, including Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva, and the total decimation of much of the Land of Israel. 

• The expulsion from Spain in 1492.  This calamitous event led to the complete destruction of one of the largest and most important Jewish communities of the Diaspora and is one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history. 

• The Khmelnitsky Massacre of 1648-1649- This Cossack revolt decimated numerous Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and led to the murder of as many as 100,000 Jews. 

During and immediately after these terrible events, there were huge upswings in messianic expectations. This messianic fervor was also accompanied by another fascinating phenomenon: false messiahs who claimed to be the saviors of the Jewish people. 

Of all the false messiah who have appeared throughout Jewish history, the best-known and most impactful was Shabtai Zvi (1626-1676). Born in Izmir, Turkey in the Ottoman empire, Shabtai was highly intelligent, charismatic, mystically inclined, and already an ordained rabbi by the age of 18.  Unfortunately, he was also mentally unstable and probably manic-depressive. 

He left Turkey and his wanderings eventually led him to Israel where he met another interesting character by the name of Nathan of Gaza. Nathan convinced Shabtai that he was in fact the Messiah and that Nathan was his prophet. Coming after centuries of horrendous persecution, expulsion, and slaughter, and only a few years after the very traumatic Khmelnitsky Massacres, the Jewish people were in a very low place and ripe for redemption

 

Word of Shabtai’s miracles spread far and wide throughout the Jewish world and a huge number of Jews were convinced that he was the real deal. The diary of a Jewish woman by the name of Gluckel of Hamelin, Germany, gives us a first-hand account of these events: 

"About this time people began to talk of Shabtai Tzvi…Throughout the world servants and children rent themselves with repentance, prayer and charity for two, yeah, for three years my beloved people Israel sat in labor, but there came forth naught but wind…    

Our joy when the letters arrived from Smyrna is not to be told.  Most of them were addressed to Sephardim.  As fast as they came, they took the letters to the synagogue and read them aloud. Young and old, the Germans, too, hastened to the Sephardi synagogues…   

 Many sold their houses and lands and all their possessions for the day they hoped to be redeemed. My good father-in-law left his home in Hamlin, abandoned his house and lands and all of his goodly furniture."

                                                            The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamelin 

The story didn’t end well. Shabtai went to the Sultan of Turkey and demanded that the sultan place his crown on Shabtai’s head. The sultan’s response was that Shabtai could either convert to Islam or lose his head.  Shabtai converted and much of the Jewish world was devasted.  

These traumatic events led to a massive backlash against messianism and messianic expectation which continues to reverberate in Jewish consciousness until today.

Like “the boy who cried wolf,” the sad saga of Shabtai Zvi and other pretenders has made the Jewish people very cautious about the whole phenomenon. 

While multiple tragedies and false messiahs may have somewhat dampened messianic expectation, the idea has never disappeared from Jewish consciousness and remains not only a central concept in Judaism but a huge source of hope throughout the long and often difficult history of the Jewish people. 

As to the question of when the real messiah finally the come-the best answer is found in the great Jewish mystical work-The Zohar: 

It is not God’s will that the date of the Messiah’s arrival be revealed to man, but when the date draws near, even children will be able to make the calculation.”                                  Zohar-Breishit 118a

 


 

Five Famous Gentiles who said the same thing about the Jews

Ken Spiro – February 2022

 

One of the great challenges of being Jewish is learning to appreciate how totally weird Jewish history is.  When I say “weird” I mean how completely out of the ordinary Jewish history is compared to the history of other peoples. Things happen to us, for better and for worse, that just don’t happen to anyone else.  The reason this is so challenging is that we have come to accept what is basically supernatural as natural and normal and have lost the sense of wonder as to just how amazing it is that we are still here! 

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a step back and look at ourselves and our history through the eyes of outsiders, non-Jews who can more objectively appreciate the uniqueness of Jewish history.  Let’s take a look at five famous non-Jews who have all taken note of the uniqueness of the Jews.  

We’ll go in chronological order starting with the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, Blais Pascal: 

This people are not eminent solely by their antiquity, but are also singular by their duration, which has always continued from their origin...and in spite of the endeavors of many powerful kings who have a hundred times tried to destroy them...they have nevertheless been preserved... 

Next comes the 18th century Bishop of Bristol, England, Thomas Newton: 

The preservation of the Jews is really one of the most signal and illustrious acts of Divine Providence…and what but a supernatural power could have preserved them in such a manner as none other nation upon earth hath been preserved …. We see that the great empires, which in their turn subdued and oppressed the people of God, are all come to ruin… 

Now let’s see what the famous Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy had to say about us: 

What is a Jew?  This question is not at all so odd as it seems.  Let us see what kind of peculiar creature the Jew is, which all the rulers and all the nations have together and separately abused and molested, oppressed and persecuted, trampled and butchered, burned and hanged...and in spite of this is still alive. 

Here’s what American author, Mark Twain wrote about the Jews in 1899: 

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream -stuff and passed away; the Greek and Roman followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone The Jew saw them all, beat them all… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.  What is the secret of his immortality? 

Finally, let’s see what early 20th-century Russian philosopher and theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev thought about Jewish history: 

Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by special predetermination…The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions, and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny... 

If we had to summarize in one sentence what all five of these famous personalities are saying it would be: “Isn’t it amazing that the Jewish people have suffered for so long at the hands of so many, yet have survived, while so many of those nations that persecuted them are gone.” 

The question is why are they all focusing on the same theme?  To understand this, we need to take a quick look at a few of the really usual aspects of Jewish history: 

Hated - The Jewish people have been around for a very long time, more than 3,000 years yet since we first appeared on the planet we have been the objects of such intense hatred and persecution that a special word was invented just to describe it-“antisemitism. “Throughout our very long history the Jewish people have lived in a lot of places yet, where ever we have gone, in any significant numbers, antisemtism has followed.   Jew hate has proven to be history’s longest, most universal, most irrational, and deepest hatred.  Logic would dictate that such an intense hatred would make the odds of Jewish survival small indeed yet, this wasn’t the only obstacle we had to overcome. 

Exiled – We may have begun our national history in the land of Israel 3,300 years ago and lived there as a nation for over a thousand years yet, we have spent the majority of history, the last two thousand years in exile, wandering around the world as strangers in a strange land.  Most of the ancient nations of the world are no longer with us yet, very few of them were exiled. To survive as a nation in exile is no easy accomplishment, but what makes Jewish history even more amazing is that we were exiled more than once and that is unheard of in history!  The first time was around 2,500 years ago at the hands of the Babylonians.  We survived that and came back to our homeland but were exiled again about 2,000 years ago by the Romans 

Scattered – If surviving as a people in exile for millennium wasn’t a big enough challenge, for most of that time we have lived in hundreds of communities scattered around the world, from one end of the earth to the other.   Isolation, persecution, expulsion, forced conversion, and outright slaughter destroyed many of the communities and stifled population growth so despite being around for thousands of years and traditionally having high birthrates, the Jewish people remained a tiny nation, and until today are just .2% of the world’s population! 

Persecution, exile, expulsion, wandering and slaughter have sadly been such a large part of the Jewish historical experience that we, as a people, have come to accept them as normal.  Non-Jews, like the ones quoted above, can look at us from a more objective perspective and see clearly that Jewish survival is one huge contradiction. To be exiled, dispersed, few in number, and constantly persecuted should have all been nails in the coffin of Jewish people’s existence yet, not only did we survive, we outlasted many of those nations that tried to destroy us. If you go back and reread these quotes again, you will see that is  precisely what these great non-Jewish minds found so amazing. .  (None of the people quoted above lived to see the return and rebirth of Israel in the mid-20th century. Imagine what they would have written if they had lived to see that!?) 

The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion once said “To be a realist as Jew, you have to believe in miracles.”  If we can start to look at our history through the eyes of others, we can begin to appreciate how truly miraculous and amazing our history and our exitance really is. 


Thursday, June 11, 2020

 

Little things that make a BIG difference
Ken Spiro

The famous 19th-century British missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, once wrote “It wasn’t the lions and tigers that got us, it was the gnats.” (He died of malaria in 1873 in what is today Zambia).  The point he was making was very powerful: sometimes, and often unexpectedly, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.

This past winter humanity got a big dose of that lesson with the Covid19 pandemic. The world was faced with something it hadn’t seen in a hundred years. The last time this happened was between 1918 and 1920 when the Great Influenza, also known as the Spanish Flu, struck.  That pandemic was far, far worse than Covid19.  An estimated 500 million were infected and between 50 and possibly up to 100 million people may have died.   In 1918 the world was deeply divided and fighting what was the first of the great conflicts of the 20th century- World War I (Some historians believe that the virus actually ended the war prematurely as the German army lacked enough healthy troops to launch their final great offensive.)

Covid19 was a very different experience. There was no world war and no taking sides. In many sci-fi movies: War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, nations put their differences aside and unite to fight off the existential threat of an alien invasion. But this winter the enemy came from within. In the space of a few weeks, virtually every country on the planet was under attack.   It took a microscopic virus to do it, but suddenly everything else was out of the news and the entire human race, with a lot of help from the internet and the mainstream media, was all on the same page, focused on the same threat and working together to win the war against an unseen enemy that threatened the whole world.

This could well have been the silver lining in this terrible event-a tiny virus pushed the world into an awareness of our shared vulnerability and the need to work together for a common good. The enemy did not recognize borders and didn’t care about race or creed. It was the human race versus Covid19.

The death of George Floyd changed everything. Literally overnight difference was in the spotlight and difference was sowing division and disunity especially in America, where the country was suddenly ripping itself apart-more divided then it has been for a half-century.  Black Lives Matter and “white privilege” were all over the internet and mainstream media.

Science tells us that ALL human beings share 99.9% genetically identical. Between you and me and everyone else on the planet, there is .01% physiological difference.  Anthropology teaches us that all homo sapiens (The fancy scientific term for humans which in Latin means “wise man”) originated in the same place (Africa) and migrated over millennia to all corners of the planet.  The racial differences we see today: Caucasoid (white), Negroid (Black), Mongoloid (Oriental), etc. are all a by-product of a long period of separation and adaptation to different geographic areas and climates.  Bottom line, the superficial difference in the color of our skin, hair and eyes aside, we really are all part of one giant extended family and are remarkably similar to one another.

The origins of this understanding of common ancestry go way back before modern science. 3,700 years ago, in The Middle East, a man named Abraham brought a radically transformative concept into the world-one God - the infinite creator of the universe and the father of all humanity.  The beginning narrative in the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve, makes a foundational point that all humanity shares common physical and spiritual origins and despite any differences in our appearance, there is fundamental equality amongst all of us.

 Abraham’s mission was not only to teach the world about one God but also to teach the world about one common destiny-a world living in harmony, united by universal, God-given values and principles. That, in a nutshell, is the Jewish, messianic vision for humanity.

 It took thousands of years, but this concept of ethical monotheism transformed the vision and values of the world and served as an ideological foundation for the political evolution of much of modern civilization as clearly stated in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence of the United States:

 WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

In practice, it didn’t work out exactly as preached.  The majority of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners, and its practical implementation has proven to be a long, hard, uphill struggle, but this statement enshrined the concept of equality as the fundamental principle of liberal democracy.

The Jewish people - the nation tasked with the unique responsibility of teaching the world these concepts- have also not always found it easy to practice what they preached. Fractiousness and divisiveness have plagued the Jewish people for millennia.  We all know the joke about a Jew, stranded on a desert island, who builds two synagogues-one he prays in and one he refuses to enter.  We have spent way too much time focusing on what divides us: Reform. Conservative, Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc. and not enough on what unites us.  We must always remember that Jew-haters make no such distinctions-In Auschwitz there was only one line and one final destination for all of us.

Maybe all the recent events that have so shaken up our world should serve as a warning and a wake-up call that we all need to make a paradigm shift in how we look at ourselves and others. Rather than focus on difference which only leads to divisiveness, we must start to focus on how much we all share and how much we all have in common. Maybe the Jewish people, who first introduced these concepts to the human race, should make the first move.

Perhaps it is fitting to close with the words of the great Rabbi Akiva, in The Ethics of the Fathers.  They are as relevant today as when they were first written almost 2,000 years ago:

“Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of God], as it is said: “for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Beloved are Israel in that they were called God’s children… as it is said: “you are children of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1). Beloved are Israel in that a precious vessel was given to them [the Torah]. Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that they were given a precious vessel through which the world was created,  as it is said: “for I give you good instruction; forsake not my Torah” (Proverbs 4:2).


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Monday, February 05, 2018

 
Destiny: The Incredible Story of the Jewish People

By Ken Spiro

When John F. Kennedy was a young man he told his mother, Rose Kennedy, that he wanted to be an actor.  She answered, “Why play someone great when you can be someone great?”  He certainly took her advice seriously.
The same can be said about us.  We run off to the movies to escape our mundane existence and feel like we are part of something bigger, part of a great adventure.

But if it’s adventure that we want, we need look no further than our own history which is as exciting, action-packed and intense as the greatest Hollywood blockbuster!  Unfortunately too many Jews don’t have the knowledge and perspective to realize how epic and unbelievable the story of the Jewish people really is.

Jewish history is so unique and unbelievable, but when the unbelievable happens to you on a regular basis you get desensitized to it and it just seems normal.  David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime mister, probably said it the best: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”  This is true not just about modern Israel but for all of Jewish history.

Even a quick look at some of the major facts of Jewish history clearly shows that there is something remarkable and unique about the Jewish people and their history:

Despite its tiny size, no people, pound for pound, have contributed more to the world than the Jews. (The fact that Jews are but .2% of the world’s population yet have received 23% of all Nobel Prizes since 1901 is just one of many examples of the Jewish people’s disproportionate impact.)

Despite all these contributions, no people have been more threatened, hated and persecuted than the Jews.

Notwithstanding this hatred and animosity, no people’s ideas have been more impactful and more transformative than the Jewish people’s.

Israel, the newest old nation on the planet and the only western, democratic state in the Middle East, is the most criticized, condemn, vilified and threatened country in the world.

Despite existential threats and political and economic isolation, Israel prospers and has contributed proportionally more to the world than any other nation on the planet.

Even the most cursory look at Jewish history begs us to ask so many questions:

What is so unique about the Jewish people and their ideas and how does this explain the transformative impact they have had on the world?

Why have they been so hated and why have so many of the most dangerous and evil people and nations throughout history felt so threatened by the Jewish people to the extent they have tried to wipe them off the face of the earth?

How have the Jewish people managed to survive and prosper when so many nations, including the greatest empires, have vanished into history books and museums?

How could any nation survive multiple exiles, be dispersed around the world for thousands of years yet come back millennia later and re-establish its state in its original homeland?

Throughout history, many of the greatest minds have taken note of the fact that there is something very unique – even supernatural – about Jewish history. Soviet-era Russian political and Christian religious philosopher Nicholai Berdyaev summed it up beautifully when he wrote:

Their [the Jews] destiny is too imbued with the "metaphysical"  to be explained either by material or positive historical terms...Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by special predetermination...The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny...
                                    Prof. Nicholai Berdyaev The Meaning of History. (London. 1935)

Jewish history is not a Hollywood epic; it is reality, a reality that is relevant to each and every Jew on the planet.  The Jewish historical experience begs us to ask so many important and pertinent questions:
Why has such a tiny nation played such and huge and fateful role in history?
Where is this story going?
And most importantly of all: What is my role in the story and how can I make a difference?

My just-published book “Destiny” attempts to answer these and many more questions that at are at the center of Jewish identity. This book explores the meaning of the Jewish people’s mission, from its very beginnings almost four thousand years ago to today and beyond. And it’s the greatest real-life story ever told.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

 
Seven Places Where Exodus-Gods and Kings Got it Wrong
By Ken Spiro


Ridley Scott, who is better known for movies like Alien and Gladiator, has decided to take a shot at The Book of Books-The Bible. His new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings is the fourth attempt to re-create this Biblical Epic. Cecil B. DeMille made two version in 1923 (a silent movie) and 1956, The Ten Commandments, and DreamWorks did the animated version, Prince of Egypt, in 1998.

It seems that each new remake of the classic Bible story gets further and further away from the “original script.” So here’s a list of seven places where Ridley got it wrong:

1-God:  There is no disembodied voice of God anywhere in the movie -not even speaking from the burning bush! The only character who speaks on behalf of God is a petulant pre-adolescent boy.  I always thought that if God had a voice He would sound more like James Earl Jones.  I have no idea where the boy came from but he inspires very little awe.

In The Book God is always talking to Moses and never appears in any human-like form but always as a disembodied voice. The very notion of God taking a human form goes completely against the incorporeal nature of the infinite Creator of the universe that Judaism so strongly affirms.

2-Moses:  Moses is played by a very intense and often sulking Christian Bales.  While Bales is a first-class actor there are certainly enough Jewish actors in Hollywood so I have no idea why Scott didn't use one of them or at least pick someone who looks a little Jewish! Scott’s Moses has no idea he is Jewish until confronted by a band of Hebrew slaves including his brother Aaron.

 In The Book Moses, who is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter (Scott got that one right), has his mother, Yochevet, as his wet-nurse (I guess he only wants “kosher milk ;-) and therefore always knows that he is Jewish. The fact that he stays loyal and connected to the Jewish people despite their lowly position and his exalted status is a testament to his greatness and his commitment.
In the movie, Moses gets his calling 9 years after he has fled from Egypt.

  In The Book he spends decades in Median and only has his first prophetic encounter with the burning bush at the ripe old age of 79. Jewish tradition tells us that he dies when he’s 120 just prior to the Jews entering the Land of Israel and after 40 years of wandering in the desert.

3-Pharoah: Scott’s Ramses is Jealous of Moses’ special relationship with daddy (The Pharaoh Seti) and throughout the movie has only a few direct encounters with Moses and  is given only a bare minimum of opportunities to relent and allow the enslaved Hebrews to leave Egypt.

In The Book there is no indication of step-sibling rivalry and Moses constantly pops into the palace, before and a between each plague where he gives Pharaoh numerous chances to end the suffering of Egypt, but Pharaoh hardens his heart and doesn't relent.

4-Plagues: While I will admit that Scott’s CGI special effects are pretty impressive (In my opinion, the best part of the movie) there are also some inaccuracies here.  He misses a few plagues: lice and wild beasts (unless you count the crocodiles at the beginning which are NOT mentioned in the Bible) and he also seems to hint that many of the plagues could possibly have natural explanations.  They also seem to take place over a fairly short time span…a few weeks or so.

In The Book there are ten altogether and they take place over a period of about a year.  In addition the Bible makes it clear that these plagues are truly supernatural complete violations of the laws of nature:  Hail that is also on fire and darkness so thick that you couldn't move in it. The point of all of these plagues was to demonstrate that idolatry is an illusion and that God has absolute power over all the forces of nature. This idea of one, all-powerful God was really radical and totally different from all the other polytheistic religions of the ancient world.

5-Prophecy: Starting with Moses’ first revelation at the Burning Bush and continuing throughout the film, Scott gets it all wrong.  In the movie Moses gets caught in a storm on the mountain, gets hit on the head with a rock and then buried in a mudslide.  The implication is the whole burning bush episode could be the by-product of a delusion caused by a head injury.  He also doesn't seem to have a very good prophetic connection to the Almighty and is left to the mercy of the random appearance of the petulant-pre-adolescent who speaks on behalf of God.

In The Book Moses wanders into a cave and has the very powerful and fully conscious burning-bush prophetic experience.  The Bible also makes it clear that Moses reaches the highest level of prophecy humanly possible and throughout his prophetic career had constant access and a clear connection to the Almighty. It is precisely due to this uniquely clear nature of Moses’ prophecy that his word has a unique status in Judaism and is the foundation of all Jewish law.

6-Guerrilla Warfare: Now here’s a bit that Scott seems to pull completely out of nowhere.  Before all the plagues start Moses organizes and trains the Hebrew slaves into a guerrilla army to sabotage Egypt and force pharaoh’s hand.  Only when this fails does the petulant pre-teen appear and tell Moses to stand aside and he’ll take it from here.
In The Book there is no mention of civil insurrection or guerrilla warfare.  The Jews are on the sidelines from the beginning and God runs the show from the get go.

7-Splitting of the Sea:  As I mentioned before –The CGI sea-splitting scene is really cool but again Scott embellishes this final dramatic climax to the story.  As a tsunami-like monster-of a wave rushes toward the fleeing Egyptian army, Moses and Pharaoh charge toward each other intent on engaging in a Troy-like, one-on-one, fight-to-the death scene.  Weather conditions don’t allow for that to take place and the scene ends with Pharaoh, the sole survivor of the Egyptian army, standing on the Egyptian shore, gazing off into the distance toward the freed slaves who have escaped his wrath.

In The Book no such dramatic final show down takes place nor is there any indication in the Bible that Pharaoh returned to his shattered kingdom to resume his rule.  In any case, going back to Egypt would probably not have been the smartest move on Pharaoh’s part as one could imagine that his popularity ratings would probably have been pretty low upon his return.

There are actually many more inaccuracies in the movie but it’s pretty clear that Exodus: Gods and Kings, while certainly being and entertaining and exciting epic of a movie, once again proves the The Book is always better than the movie.



Sunday, May 25, 2014

 
A Rare Pope Indeed
By Ken Spiro

From the perspective of the Jewish people Pope Francis is a rare pope indeed.

It would be a huge understatement to say that historically Catholic-Jewish relations haven’t been very good.  It would probably be more accurate to say that the Church is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the horrendous anti-Semitism suffered by European Jewry during the last 2,000 years.

The roots of this tremendous animus go back to the very beginnings of the early church and even earlier.
For two thousand years-from the time of Abraham until the birth of Christianity, Judaism existed alone as the world’s only monotheistic faith. The Jewish people’s unique beliefs and   different lifestyle set them apart from the pagan world and the great classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. The differences led to open hostility toward the Jews and both the Greek and Roman Empires, which occupied ancient Israel, attempted at various times to eradicate Judaism.

Early Christianity began as a splinter sect of mainstream Judaism most-probably sometime in the early 1st century CE. During the second century it continued to evolve and diverge from Judaism, eventually separating completely into a faith that attracted a large number of pagan converts.

Despite numerous attempts by the Roman Empire to eradicate nascent Christianity, in the 4th century CE the Roman emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire. A great leap forward for the spread of monotheism but now traditional Roman animus toward Judaism took on a new theological undertone.
Toward the end of the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire (67-70CE) the Roman legions had burned the Temple in Jerusalem and leveled the city. Centuries later the young Roman Catholic Church put a theological spin on the destruction.  The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple together with the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel was far more than mere- Roman punish for rebellion.  It was divine retribution-The wrath of God.  From the perspective of the church the Jews had rejected Jesus as the messiah and were instrumental in his death.  As punishment for their sins God rejected the Jews, destroyed their temple and caused them to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus.

These unpardonable sins were at the root of the tremendous hostility and suspicion embedded in the collective consciousness of the church and actively spread by the church and the early church fathers to the masses of Christendom.

In the eyes of the church the Jews were perfidious Christ-killers, in league with the devil; poisoners of wells who deliberately spread plagues to destroy Christendom.  They kidnap Christian children and use their blood to bake matzot  (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) while bleeding Christendom dry of  its wealth though their usury, greed and conspiracies.

Church-driven anti-Semitism led to open violence against Jews, especially at the time of the first Crusade as well as constant persecution, punitive taxation, humiliation, ghettoization, expulsions and mass murder.
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment the church’s powerful hold on the masses weakened and anti-Jewish violence in western Europe waned.

 But then came the Holocaust and while Hitler’s attack against the Jews was not specifically theological there is no doubt that he would not have been able to do what he did to European Jewry without building on 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism.  At the same time, the role of the war-time Pope Pius XII and his apparent failure to confront the horrors of Nazism remains a dark stain on the history of the church.

Out of the ashes of Auschwitz the State of Israel emerged yet despite the death of 6 million Jews and miraculous re-birth of the Jewish state it took decades for the church to make any major steps in re-evaluating its attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people.

FORGIVENESS-Finally in 1965 the first bold move came at the end of Pope Paul VI’s tenure.  It is known as Vatican II and the document makes three very significant statements about the Jewish people:

-Only a few Jews were involved in the plot to kill Jesus

-No Jew alive today can be held responsible for Jesus’s death

-That the Jews are not rejected by God

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. …Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.  Vatican II –Nostra Aetate

After two thousand years the church was finally able to forgive the Jews for something they never did in the first place.

ACCEPTANCE-The next major step came from Pope John Paul II in 2000 and it was even more significant.  He established diplomatic relations with Israel and visited the country even praying at the Western Wall.  If God had allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel and re-unified Jerusalem maybe He hadn't rejected them after all.  This represented a huge shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism.

RECONCILIATION AND LEGITIMIZATION-Pope Francis is proving to be quite a maverick.  He eschews much of the formality and pomp of his office while working hard to rejuvenate the church and reconcile the church not only with modernity but also with other faiths.

Based on past statements made by Francis it could well be argued that he will bring about the greatest shift in the church’s attitude toward Judaism in 2,000 years:

We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God was never revoked….With them we believe in one God who acts in history and with them we accept his revealed word.                                                   Pope Francis- Evangelli Gaudium 2013

The notion that the Jewish people’ covenant with God remains intact is truly a radical break with classic Catholic theology and reminiscent of statement made by dual-covenant, pro-Israel, evangelicals like Pastor John Hagee.

This new perspective will hopefully lead to a significant re-evaluation and improvement of the relationship between the Catholicism and Judaism, Catholics and Jews and the Vatican and the State of Israel.


Since the church of Saint Peter was established almost 2,000 years ago there have only been three popes out of 266 brave enough to make significant changes in the relationship between the worlds’ largest faith and one of the smallest.  Let us hope that trend continues. 

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